Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

I have been giving myself a little bit of time to allow this book to soak in and to decide how I would approach reviewing it. I'll say here that I loved Gaiman's newest work, but it's how to say it that I am pondering.

I think I'm not even going to give you any sort of plot details because that's how I approached the book--I avoided reading blurbs and summaries and reviews that gave out even tiny details of the plot because I wanted the book to be unshaped by others' perspectives. I mentioned in my previous review for The Shining Girls how the blurb made the book eminently more interesting than the book actually was; I just wanted to approach The Ocean at the End of the Lane completely without bias.

The best way to describe the book in one word is, I think, "mythic". mythic in the sense that the story is fascinating and matter-of-fact and instructive and explanatory and agelessly impactful. That's certainly how it felt when I was reading it and that's how it feels now when I'm thinking about it. If you've had any experience with Neil Gaiman's prose before, you'll know what's coming: it's that casual blending of fantasy into reality that you might encounter in Coraline or Neverwhere but this time it feels different somehow. I've seen a lot of reviews saying that this work is Gaiman's most personal, his most intimate, and I guess that's the best way to describe it.

The novel is short--less than 200 pages--but it's amazing how much the author can accomplish in such a tight, controlled space. The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels spare and dense all at once, replete with dazzling description and powerful meditations on youth, family life and memory. Some of the concrete details are missing, which was a problem for some readers, I noticed, but not for me. It's all part of the dreamlike nature of the book--it swallows you and immerses you and, truly like a dream or a long-faded memory, you can't gather every detail.

Gaiman's newest book enchanted me in the truest sense of the word; it's the kind of book that you don't finish and say "wow, that was awesome, I totally loved it", but the sort of novel that days, weeks, months later will resurface in your mind to haunt you and captivate you all over again. For me in particular, some of the book's themes resonated with me very deeply, and while that might not be the case for every reader, I think it's very easy to allow oneself into the Hempstock family's farm as though it were your own.

I have been trying really hard to communicate how ensnared I felt when I read the book and in the days that have followed; the best way for me to describe it is like when you're treading water and it's all around you and it seems endless and vast. Saying it that way seems cheap and cheesy because, well, it's called The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it's the best I can do. It's clear I'm just not worthy enough of properly reviewing a Neil Gaiman book, especially one of this magnitude.

Read it.

My rating: 5/5
The Ocean at the End of the Lane on Goodreads
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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Shining Girls (Lauren Beukes)

I don't normally do thrillers. My first real one was Gone Girl last December, and I absolutely loved it, but not so much for the thriller aspects. So I was a little hesitant to pick up The Shining Girls; I'm not a fan of crime procedural anything, be it books or movies or television shows. They're painfully formulaic. But as I have been dealing with time-travel books recently, I allowed the same concept here to pull me in.

Namely, there is a serial killer with a magic house that allows him to travel freely between Chicagos of different time periods in order to better pursue his victims, the titular "shining girls". The twist, then, is one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, did not die after he tries to kill her. She becomes obsessed with finding him. Even writing about the premise, I'm sucked back in by how interesting it sounds.

But I was disappointed. Beukes came up with one of the most blurbable premises for a book ever and then failed to execute it properly. The book is medium-length, about 400 pages and manages to be too short and too long all at once. There's a horrifying lack of development in those things that we care about and a staggering amount of focus on the things we don't want to hear about.  A lot of the reviews I read prior to reading The Shining Girls said they were disappointed because of how little explanation there is for how the House works or why Harper is a serial killer.

I thought to myself, "that's silly; we don't need an explanation about the magical realism involved in the house or the psychology of Harper", but after I read the whole book, I agree. I am not necessarily concerned with how the House works; I still stand by my statement about accepting magical realism at face value. And I understand that the point of serial killers is that there is just something in their brains that makes them want to kill, so that wasn't it, either. Too often did the book (or, I suppose, Beukes) feel comfortable in side-stepping any explanation by saying things about how it's fate and destiny and it's just meant to happen so it does.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)

Until this point, I have never experienced Margaret Atwood as a novelist. I am a little embarrassed by that, because everyone raves about her. I was thrilled, then, to start her most popular and one of her most-liked novels, The Handmaid's Tale. Like so many books, it has been on my radar for a very long time and I have owned it for a number of years. I decided that this summer would be the time to read it. I am really, really torn about how I feel about this book. I have been pondering it for hours, which is pretty unusual for me, because generally I can immediately decide if I like something.

Okay, so the book takes place in what I assume is the late 1990s; the United States no longer exists. It has been replaced by a hyperreligious state, known as Gilead--this is Atwood asking us to imagine what would happen if fundamentalist Christians with a very strict, narrow approach to the Bible assumed total control.

Offred finds herself in this new dystopia (which is a word that so perfectly describes what Gilead is; in the advent of The Hunger Games and Divergent, I think the word gets tossed about a little too often) where women are incredibly subjugated; they aren't allowed to hold jobs or read or do anything without spousal permission. She is a Handmaid--a woman whose sole function is to get pregnant in order to supply a child to a married couple who cannot. I think that should be sufficient in terms of plot summary--at this point, if your attention hasn't been grabbed, then don't bother reading the book.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this dystopia is that Offred lived in the time before it existed; the trope of the genre in recent years has been a powerful teen girl who is born into the dystopian society and rises up to destroy it--she has no memory of what the old ways were because those old ways are far in the past. This is not the case; in fact, Offred is maybe the anti-Katniss--she fell victim to the transition and has no intention of fighting to end the regime. Certainly by the end of the book she hasn't broken the Gileadean government, and while she's involved at least partially with a resistance group, she seems primarily concerned about her daughter rather than "the good of all".